CNN writes that the US Justice Department charged a Russian national who, along with her mentor, aimed to set up backchannel communications during the presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with conspiring against the US as a foreign agent.
Mariia Butina, also known as Maria, was arrested on Sunday and appeared in court in Washington, DC, on Monday, according to the Justice Department. She'll be detained for three days until her next court appearance.
She and her mentor, Kremlin-linked banker Alexander Torshin, spent three years trying to make inroads with US political organizations and operatives to develop a more conciliatory approach to Russia among American politicians, according to court filings and CNN reporting.
Torshin and Butina feared the end of the Obama administration in 2016, and targeted Republicans, according to court filings. Their primary avenue of influence appeared to be the National Rifle Association, according to CNN reporting and court filings, though the organization is not explicitly referred to by name in the legal documents.
Torshin bragged both publicly and privately that he and Butina were the only Russians who were also lifetime members of the NRA, and they leveraged their relationship with the NRA's leadership to foster relationships with Republican Party leaders, American politicians and business leaders. They even used their connection to try to establish a covert communications channel between then-candidate Trump and Putin.
Butina's attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, denied that Butina was “an agent of the Russian Federation” in a statement on Monday, and insisted the charge levied against her was “overblown.”
According to the Justice Department, Butina was working at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government. While the official was not named in the indictment, it appears to be Torshin. Previously a member of the Russian legislature, Torshin later worked as a top official at the Central Bank of Russia. He was among the Russian officials the US government slapped with sanctions in April 2018 as part of an effort to punish the Russian government for “malign activity” around the world.
Butina and Torshin “took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ lines of communication,” an FBI affidavit filed in court says. “These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
CNN has previously reported that during the presidential campaign, Torshin worked with his protégé, Butina, as well as other associates, to try to arrange back-channel communications between Putin and then-candidate Trump. Those efforts appear to have been rebuffed by members of the Trump campaign, according to previous CNN reporting and documents that were provided to the House Intelligence Committee.
Torshin and Butina often used their NRA ties to try to bolster Russian interests. In one instance, Torshin aimed to meet with Trump around the 2016 NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. The meeting never took place, but Torshin and Butina did cross paths with Donald Trump Jr. at a dinner on the sidelines of the event.
Trump Jr. testified to lawmakers last year that he briefly met Torshin at a dinner with a few dozen officials from the NRA. Trump Jr. said they spoke for only “a few minutes” and did not talk about colluding with the Russian government. Butina — who founded a gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms in Moscow — has previously said her outreach to American political operatives was purely out of a shared passion for firearms.
She told The Washington Post in April 2017 that “no government official has ever approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans.”